The flood gating of a 10,000 hectare swamp in the Waikato River delta years ago may have improved “the productivity” of the land but it has had consequences on the environment including contributing to the halt of the natural spawning cycle of whitebait.
Thanks to the vision and tireless work of Stu Muir, a fifth generation Waikato dairy farmer in the area [Aka Aka, Waikato River delta], however, whitebait have begun to increase in numbers.
Over the past five years, with the help of funding from the Waikato River Authority, Muir, wife Kim Jobson and their children, Lexi, 13, Taite, 11, Sandy, 10 and Hazel, 7, have got stuck in boots and all, clearing many kilometres of the Papa and Mangati waterways by hand, and turning them from choked and dying waterways into vibrant living streams. By doing so they’ve created tidal whitebait habitat spawning ponds. They’ve also planted more than 15,000 native trees and plants along the waterways with the goal to have 40,000 planted by the end of the year.
Muir’s work has set off a chain reaction in the area with neighbouring farmers jumping on board too. “We’ve now got a whole chain gang going up the river from this one little project – they’ve all seen the benefits of it and that it can be funded,” says Muir. “The Waikato River Authority is allowing people to do what they have always wanted to do – the opportunity to get in and do it. As custodian of the land you have a responsibility and most farmers want to leave something better than what they started off with.”
On the farm Muir has been restoring marginal land back to its native state, creating areas for wildlife and “to make something naturally beautiful out of it”. Pest control is another project Muir is hot on. So far he has trapped more than 100 ferrets and stoats, which are a threat to the rare bittern bird. “Even by DOC (Department of Conservation) standards that’s a lot so they must be having a devastating effect,” he says.
Muir grew up on the family farm. His family’s relationship with the Tainui Iwi dates back to the early 1850s. As a child he swam in the river and his grandparents drank water from it. He’d like his kids to at least be able to swim in it again too. “It should not be an unrealistic goal that our children should be able to swim in the streams that their ancestors drank from,” Muir says.
In the 1850s, the Mangati was like “State Highway One”, connecting all river and coastal travel by waka from the Waikato to the Manukau harbour and north. The Muir’s farm is at the end of the Waikato River. “We’re at the end so every town, city, farm and industry that it passes through, we get a little bit of an accumulation of that. Sadly, it’s a murky shadow of what it once was,” says Muir. “It’s a consequence of many things, not just the flood gating or dairy. There’s [pest fish] koi carp, loss of habitat, hydro dams, more people fishing and industrial waste. What we have been trying to do is restore, protect and return the mana of the land and the water ways that we are custodians of.”
On the farm, the Muir family live the good life. Muir and Jobson have brought up their children to respect the environment as well as how to live off the land. Wildlife in their backyard includes pheasants, morepork, kereru, tui, kaka, quails, ducks, peacocks, rabbits, hares and wild pigs. Like other families in the area, they follow the seasons when it comes to sustenance. Food comes from the land or river delta – duck, venison, hare, whitebait, scallops and snapper. They grow their own vegetables. All the meat they eat is off the farm, as well as eggs, and milk from the vat.
When he is not working the farm, planting trees, clearing streams or trapping pests, Muir spends his time educating visiting school groups on the importance of protecting the environment. He is looking to start doing eco tours too. “There is a huge disconnect between urban and rural people and one of the things we are doing is getting schools to come down here and teaching them that farming is not just about the physical side – it’s about science, innovation, history and the culture of the people on the land and the environment.”
Already Muir has proved that by working in small but significant steps to restore the environment to what it once was, it is possible to make a difference.